By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A former case manager at CARE Hawaii filed suit against the mental health care provider, claiming she was wrongfully terminated after reporting other case managers illegally billed the state and private health insurance companies for work they didn’t do.
The civil lawsuit was filed Oct. 31 in Hilo Circuit Court by attorney Ted Hong on behalf of Anna Liza O. Ha and seeks unspecified general, special, compensatory and punitive damages. The filing also seeks back salary and benefits with interest and attorney’s fees. The suit claims Ha was fired for blowing the whistle on a co-worker who was later promoted over her to a supervisory position, and that CARE Hawaii engaged in civil racketeering for using “money that was unlawfully gained to operate their enterprise,” according to Hong.
Ha was employed by the private mental health care company from July 27, 2009, until her termination Sept. 17, 2012, the suit states.
According to the filing, in June 2012, Ha conducted intake interviews of two new clients and entered the information on CARE Hawaii’s billing database for approval and payment by the state and private insurers. In July 2012, she allegedly noticed in the database two other case managers, identified in the suit by initials “HC” and “DW,” also logged they conducted intake interviews for the same two clients. The suit states case managers are “prohibited from conducting duplicate intakes and submitting billable units for the same intakes.”
“The billings that were submitted by the other employees were false because they never interviewed or talked to these individuals,” Hong said Monday. “They just made it up. It’s duplicative in the sense that someone else (Ha) interviewed these individuals but it’s false because they never saw these people at all.”
The suit states Ha reported the false billing to supervisors and identified the two case managers responsible. An investigation was conducted into her complaint and confirmed the two case managers “had billed for work that was not performed.” One of them, identified by Hong as DW, was terminated, the suit states. The other, HC, was promoted in August 2012 to team leader, a position Ha was also considered for, Hong said. Hong said HC became Ha’s direct supervisor.
The suit alleges Ha sent an email to CARE Hawaii’s Community Based Case Management director “expressing her objections to the promotion” of HC.
The suit states Ha was fired Sept. 17, 2012, after “defendant resurrected a minor incident involving (Ha’s) inadvertent bump” of HC while passing through a narrow hallway and that “other minor incidents as far back as 2011” were also resurrected to justify Ha’s termination.
“She bumped HC,” Hong acknowledged. “It was a minor incident that occurred earlier in the year. HC thought that my client had intentionally kind of shoved her in the hallway. She made a complaint. There was an investigation and they used that as a pretext to terminate her.
“… The other things were abusive language and bad attitude, really vague things that were raised as reason for my client’s termination. There was a pattern of a lot of back and forth going on, not necessarily raised by my client, but directed towards my client.”
CARE Hawaii was served with the lawsuit and in its response, the company’s Honolulu attorney, Paul Saito, wrote CARE Hawaii “denies all allegations” by Ha.
Saito’s response said CARE Hawaii “did not resurrect a minor incident” and Ha “had been counseled on an ongoing basis against her bullying conduct, frequent violation of company policy that prohibited use of vulgar language, and disrespectful conduct. Those warnings included a written warning in February 2012 accompanying discipline for insubordination, and a September 13, 2011 written warning for refusing to allow access to her time records to a supervisor who questioned her time entries and calling him a ‘d—- head.’” CARE Hawaii’s filing states Ha was reminded in Dec. 11 of the company’s zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence “and still her co-worker complained that (Ha) violated that policy in July 2012 when she forcibly bumped into her in the hallway.”
The document states CARE Hawaii “denies its action (Ha’s firing) was pretextual.”
Hong said Ha, a social worker, has found employment since her firing, but it isn’t at the level of what she did at CARE Hawaii.
“She really enjoyed what she was doing and personally took on the mission of the entity, in terms of reaching out to these disabled individuals,” he said. “And it’s just a shame that they took the easy way out and tossed her out, basically, under made-up circumstances. So, we’re looking forward to pursuing this and holding them accountable.”
Saito did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.